Christopher P. Gardner, a wealthy African American Wall Street investor, recently gave the American Federation of Teachers $25,000 to publish a how-to booklet for students. It's called "Hard Work Pays" and tells teenagers that the more education they have, the more money they're likely to make.
You'd figure that Gardner would hold several advanced degrees, given the millions of dollars that he makes each year.
But get this: He's a high school dropout who not so long ago was homeless, living out of a subway restroom in San Francisco.
Of course, Gardner would prefer that the message in "Hard Work Pays" be played up, and not his rags-to-riches story. And the truth is, this is a fine publication. It's aimed at inner-city schoolchildren who want to go to college and need to know that building a strong academic record is how to get there.
On the other hand, Gardner's life shows that there is more than one way to skin a cat.
At age 45, he is president of the investment house Gardner Rich Co. Inc., which has offices on the 45th floor of the Trump Towers complex, overlooking Central Park in New York City. He manages billions of dollars in various pension funds and helps scores of high school students learn about the financial services industry by employing them in summer jobs.
How Gardner became homeless on the streets of San Francisco is one of those long, involved tales of divorce, followed by the loss of his house and the collapse of several job prospects.
What's important, however, is that he never gave up.
He's the kind of guy you'd call an optimist, who sees opportunities in every obstacle and prides himself in "taking the lemons that life hands you and making lemonade." He believes that every person he meets--from the prostitutes with whom he once shared the streets to ministers who gave him shelter in their churches--has something to teach.
"I used the wisdom of Will Rogers, who said, 'I went to school with every man that ever talked to me,' " Gardner recalled.
One day, while looking for a job, Gardner said, he met a man who drove a red Ferrari. So he asked him what kind of job lets a person drive a car like that. Stockbroker, the man replied, adding that he made up to $80,000 a month. It was 1981, and Gardner decided that, for that kind of money, he'd do whatever it took to become one.
"I remembered reading 'The Autobiography of Malcolm X' and vowed that I would study like Malcolm had studied in prison," Gardner recalled. "I would devote myself to passing the exam to become a stockbroker."
With his 14-month-old son with him for much of the time, Gardner hustled to find day care and shelters for the homeless. He worked as a roofer, house painter and yardman by day; he studied hard each night. With great persistence, he eventually was admitted into a training program offered by the Dean Witter investment firm.
"I'd be the first one at work and the last one to leave," Gardner recalled, adding wryly, "because I'd sleep under my desk."
Gardner's determination and initiative were soon recognized by another broker, who hired him to work at Bear, Stearns & Co. By 1986, he was making $300,000 a year and decided to go into business for himself.
Gardner grew up in a small Louisiana town called Delhi. He did not know his father. His mother was an elementary school English teacher who had drilled him on basic grammar during his formative years. While he was attending junior high school in Milwaukee, an algebra teacher took him under her wing and told him repeatedly that he was just as worthy of success as anybody else.
Nevertheless, he lost interest in school and eventually joined the Navy, following several men in his family who had served in the military. When Gardner's Navy stint ended, he had few prospects, and his life went into a downward spiral. But even when he was most desperate, he remembered those early lessons.
"I began to feel quite competitive towards professional athletes," Gardner said. "I'd tell myself, 'I just can't let those guys make more money than me just because they can run and jump and catch a ball.' "
Gardner now owns a Ferrari--a customized black one he bought from basketball legend Michael Jordan. As if to highlight his continuing competition with athletes, Gardner's license plate reads: NOT MJ.
"What makes America the greatest country on Earth is that the ultimate tool is the brain, not the jump shot," Gardner said. "And everybody has a brain; all you have to do is use it."
Gardner says that gratitude for his teachers, especially his mother, caused him to become a supporter of the American Federation of Teachers and a major sponsor of the National Teacher of the Year program.
In the last four years, he has donated more than $700,000 to various educational programs across the country--including grants to help teachers buy classroom supplies and funds to build a wing of a school in Alaska.
About 100,000 students, mostly seventh-graders, will receive copies of "Hard Work Pays." The key to success, it says, is for students to start early taking challenging courses like algebra, calculus, chemistry, physics, American history, English literature and at least three years of a foreign language.
None of which Gardner did.
"Young people look at me and say, 'You didn't go to college. You didn't take these hard courses. Why should I?' " Gardner said. "I say, 'You're right. I didn't. The truth is, I got real lucky. But I wouldn't want to bet my life on that happening again.' "